It’s easy to argue that the past few years have been dominated by smartphones, tablets and smartphones that want to grow up to be tablets. It’s a bit harder to predict what the next big thing in tech is going to be but watching the global drive towards dominance in emerging technology can give us a few good ideas.
What’s next seems to be wearables, in many shapes and forms, but that’s almost a given when you examine the plethora of devices that have already hit the market. The major stepping stone in technology after that looks to be virtual reality, an idea whose time seems to have come, to paraphrase the great Terry Pratchett (go read Moving Pictures).
How do we know this? It’s fairly obvious, the rise in excitement over the (initially) crowdfunded Oculus Rift headset and its subsequent purchase by Facebook (for the kind of money you could use to feed a medium-sized country for a year), Samsung getting into the game with the Gear VR and launching their own VR service to support it, and just about every other company angling for a slice of this unbaked pie are pretty big clues.
Not even tech trend-setter for the last couple of years, Apple, is immune to this follow-the-herd approach to virtual reality. Though the company has yet to make any official announcements, Cupertino has just been granted a patent for a virtual reality headset that would, if it’s ever made, work with the iPhone (via The Next Web) along the same lines as Samsung’s Gear VR.
Apple has been critical of VR headsets, saying recently though CEO Tim Cook that users would not want to wear them so perhaps they’re just doing a bit of future-proofing in case VR actually takes off. But there have been hints in the past year that they’re making contingency plans for virtual reality, including filing other related patents and putting out a job listing for a VR/Augmented Reality programmer in 2014 so there’s that.
Long and crumbly road
Virtual reality has a far longer history than most give it credit for, stretching back beyond the 1960s if you believe those historians with their glasses and fancy documentation. And each and every time that it has been touted as the next big thing in tech, it has crashed and burned horribly.
Folks have been trying to simulate reality or augment it for quite some time, whether it’s on the stage or in movie theatres with the ill-fated Smell-O-Vision, which was an actual thing which didn’t do all that well. Something to do with the inability to regulate smells being sent to movie patrons effectively – which is quite a concern in a crowded area, as anyone who’s ever experienced flatulence in an elevator will tell you.
The most recent surge in VR, aside from the one we’re now experiencing, was in the 1990s, in the land of arcades and the early stages of truly popular video games. Billed as an entertainment technology (as it is now), the bubble popped soon afterwards without much headway being made to turn virtual reality into a true consumer product. But that’s what happens when you promise people the world and then send them a section of turf cut from a lawn somewhere or, to put it another way, you offer a different reality and give them a super-expensive set of kit and large polygons to play with.
A real shot
This time around, virtual reality has perhaps its best crack at really becoming a thing. A working thing, that isn’t going to be a flash in the pan. There’s a massive amount of money being lobbed in the direction of VR, with Facebook’s $2 billion going to a single company. We’re not even sure how much the likes of Samsung, Sony and Google have expended on the Gear VR, Project Morpheus and Glass technologies at this point but money is being spent on the developer side to get useful (and perhaps not so useful) technology developed for this potential game-changer in addition to the great big wedges of cash being thrown at portable VR hardware for the home. And that’s that it’s all about for the companies involved, getting their hardware into houses the same way that tablets have become commonplace.
Microsoft is also trying their hand at household VR with the HoloLens, which just about nobody has seen in action yet. But in their preview video (above) they’ve managed to highlight just what actual, useful, virtual reality could be: a combination of entertainment immersion and functionality that improves the way that we live our lives in the workplace. True, HoloLens falls more under the banner of augmented reality (AR) rather than VR or holograms, as Microsoft likes to call them, but this is the future that we’d like to see. Whether Microsoft, or any other company, can provide this future world as we see it here is another story. History sometimes travels in cycles and virtual reality could just be on an expensive twist of the roundabout this go-around. But somehow we doubt it this time. Our money’s on widespread adoption of VR in the next couple of years. It’s time.